Anthony Johnson: Not the First Slave Owner

I’m sure many of you have seen the phony claim neoconfederates often put forward that a black man, Anthony Johnson, was the first slave owner in Colonial America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve already dealt with this phony claim here.

In this post I’d like to share some additional information uncovered during my research. Recall Anthony Johnson’s case against John Casor was in 1655. “As early as 1639 we hear of a Negro slave in Pennsylvania. In 1644 Negroes were in demand to work the lowlands of Delaware. … Negro slaves were sold in Maryland in 1642. … There is evidence to show that the status of the Negro was at first very closely affiliated with that of the white servant with whom the colonists were thoroughly familiar and who stood half way between freedom and complete subjugation. It is probable, therefore, that both Indian and Negro servitude preceded Indian and Negro slavery in all the colonies, though the transition to slavery as the normal status of the Negro was very speedily made.” [John M. Mecklin, “The Evolution of the Slave Status in American Democracy, Part I,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. II, No. 2, April, 1917, p. 106]

I found an article that traced the development of legislation that established slavery in various colonies. “Whether racism caused slavery or vice versa, by mid-century Africans had arrived in Virginia in significant numbers and many were held in lifetime servitude. In the 1640s, Africans were described in legal records as servants ‘forever,’ and their children assumed that same status at birth as in the sale of ‘one Negro girle [sic] named Jowan … and with her issue and produce during her (or either of them) for their Life tyme [sic]. And their successors forever.’ Legislative punishments in the 1640s began to differentiate between white servants, whose time could be extended, and blacks, whose time could not because they were already bound in perpetuity. In 1639, Virginia prohibited arming Africans.” [William W. Wiecek, “The Origins of the Law of Slavery in British North America,” Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 6, May, 1996, pp. 1755-1756]

“Between the first English settlements in 1634 and enactment of the first decisive slave statute thirty years later, black Marylanders lived through a period obscure to us, when the status of many of them evolved from some form of unfreedom like servitude to explicit slavery. Slavery, as a legal institution, evolved over time, originating in servitude, which was based on a contractual assumption, but mutated out of such voluntaristic origins into something that was a consequence of skin color and parental status. … In Maryland, as elsewhere in early America, evolving racist thought, combined with economic opportunism, led whites to create piecemeal a legally enforced condition of slavery for black Marylanders. A 1639 statue, ‘An Act for the Liberties of the People,’ confirmed the rights of Englishmen for ‘all the inhabitants of this Province being Christians (Slaves excepted).’ ” [Ibid., p. 1761]

Another article traces significant findings of historians when it came to the development of slavery in America. “One historian, James Ballagh, firmly established the case for the late development of slavery. He probably first came to that position during his investigation into the problem of white servitude in Virginia, where he found a preference for white servants and slow development of black slavery. He examined the problem in more detail in A History of Slavery in Virginia, in which he asserted, with considerable documentary evidence, that ‘Negro and Indian servitude thus preceded negro [sic] and Indian slavery,’ and in some cases continued even after slavery was established. Ballagh also showed that the evolution from servitude to slavery was not confined to Virginia, but also occurred in Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and both Carolinas. He further pointed out that the philosophical basis of the institution was either ‘race or creed, or both,’ and that slavery was ‘based upon the natural and ineradicable quality of racial difference.’ Ballagh’s student, John H. Russell, continued to investigate the matter. In The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865, he, too, noted that whereas the legal system had begun in the 1660s, de facto slavery began to emerge earlier, probably around 1640. He used primarily court cases and inventories of estates to show this. James Wright, in The Free Negro in Maryland, found that in Maryland also there was evidence of creation of a de facto slavery long before the legal institution was enacted, indeed even earlier than the 1640 Russell proposed. Wright also said that the statutes creating legal slavery were probably caused by need of better protection of property and by the ‘negative reasons’ of social interest ‘based on matters of race,’ especially the fear of whites for those blacks living among them. Other historians’ work continued in this theme, as T. R. Davis, Edward Turner, Helen T. Catterall, Lewis Gray, and Susie M. Ames all showed de facto slavery occurring before the institution of legalized slavery.” [Raymond Starr, “Historians and the Origins of British North American Slavery,” The Historian, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, November, 1973, pp. 2-3]

Yet another article establishes slavery in Virginia existing prior to Anthony Johnson’s case in 1655: “Not until 1630 is there any evidence of legal distinctions between Negro and white servants in Virginia. In September the General Court ordered ‘Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped, before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro.’ It is not completely clear whether Davis was punished for his fornication because his paramour was a Negro, or perhaps only because she was unbaptized. A clearer distinction was made by an act of the Assembly in January, 1639, providing that ‘All persons except negroes’ should be armed.’ This was the first of the long train of statutory discriminations that would ultimately make of the Negro a slave. Servitude for life was first recorded in Virginia in July, 1640, in a case involving runaway servants. All three were sentenced to receive thirty stripes. Two of them, a Scot and a Dutchman, were required to serve an additional four years ‘after the time of their service is expired … ; the third being a negro named John Punch,’ was ordered to serve ‘his … master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.’ ” [Paul C. Palmer, “Servitude Into Slave: The Evolution of the Legal Status of the Negro Laborer in Colonial Virginia,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXV, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 356-357]

We have more from Winthrop Jordan in an article he wrote for the Journal of Southern History: “The first evidence as to the actual status of Negroes does not appear until about 1640. Then it becomes clear that some Negroes were serving for life and some children inheriting the same obligation. … The complete deprivation of civil and personal rights, the legal conversion of the Negro into a chattel, in short slavery as Americans came to know it, was not accomplished overnight. Yet these developments practically and logically depended on the practice of hereditary lifetime service, and it is certainly possible to find in the 1640’s and 1650’s traces of slavery’s most essential feature. The first definite trace appears in 1640 when the Virginia General Court pronounced sentences on three servants who had been retaken after running away to Maryland. Two of them, a Dutchman and a Scot, were ordered to serve their masters for one additional year and then the colony for three more, but ‘the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.’ ” [Winthrop D. Jordan, “Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, February, 1962, p. 23] Jordan gives some other specific examples in the 1640s of black people being bought and sold and owned for life.

Another article focuses on the statutory development of slavery in Maryland. “Early legislation implicitly recognized the existence of slavery. ‘An Act for the liberties of the people’ in 1639, provided that all Christian inhabitants, ‘Slaves excepted’ should have the rights of Englishmen. Further, ‘An Act limiting the time of Servants,’ also passed in 1639, expressly excluded slaves. … Probably in 1639 ‘slave’ as a matter of law simply meant a person who was obligated to serve his master for life. Although slavery may have been hereditary by 1640, perhaps it was not, because in 1664 legislation was enacted apparently to establish that characteristic.” [Jonathan L. Alpert, “The Origin of Slavery in the United States–the Maryland Precedent,” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XIV, 1970, pp. 190-191] The article goes on to talk specifically of mentions of individual black men held as slaves in the 1640s and 1650s. In writing about a 1664 Maryland statute called “An Act Concerning Negroes & other Slaves,” Alpert writes, “This legislation legalized the de facto slavery which had been recognized at least since 1639.” [Ibid., p. 195]

I think this evidence, combined with the evidence I presented earlier, establishes without doubt the claim Anthony Johnson was the first slave owner is a complete fiction.



  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    The neo-confederates put forth the claim in an attempt to remove the issue of racism when it comes to their ancestors owning slaves and fighting to protect slavery. They are not interested in historical accuracy. For them, it’s all about plausible history. If it sounds good and makes them feel better, then it’s good enough for them.

    Of course it’s a big lie, but they don’t care. They’ve spent their entire lives covering up the reality of the past to sustain the lie they believe in. Why should they let facts stop them now?

    1. You’ve hit the proverbial nail right on the head again, Jimmy.

    2. Leisa Greathouse · · Reply

      Yes Jimmy, as Al has said, you hit the nail on the head. I will add to your post that the perspective of neo-confederates, as they are being called here, certainly do try to justify themselves. It shows in dastardly voting laws in states across the country, including mine in NC. Thankfully, these are being shot down by the Supreme Court. Their perspectives being transferred into laws is truly a devastating effect and a legacy of this history that continues to be cruel, in my opinion. Do they “repeat” history because they want to or do they just don’t know history?

  2. Reblogged this on Exploring the Past and commented:
    Excellent research from blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey on the fallacious claim that a black man–Anthony Johnson–was the first slaveholder in what would become the United States. I wrote about Johnson in 2014 here:

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Nick.

  3. bob carey · · Reply

    Very good post Al.
    I was especially intrigued by your research into the early statutes which stated that as un-Christians blacks could be enslaved. I immediately thought of the “Lost Cause” tenet that one of the positive aspects of slavery was introducing the slaves to Christianity. These people were now Christian , but they were still slaves.

    1. Thanks, Bob. You’re exactly right. And, by the way, how Christian is it to sell a child away from her parents, to rape a woman because you own her, and to beat a man because he didn’t pick as much cotton as you thought he should?

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        The list of atrocities committed in the name of religion is long and it covers most of mankinds’ history. I had a wise teacher in high school who told us “never get religion and belief in God mixed up, they are two separate things”. BTW this teacher was a Christian Brother.

  4. I know you touched on this in that other post Al, But I’m really glad you decided to post on this directly.

    1. Also Al, someday you should cover the “trial” of Jeff Davis. Its a pretty controversial one. It has all the good stuff, treason, secession…etc

        1. Jason Perez · · Reply

          Ah yes thanks Al, I do remember reading that I thought you’d give it it’s own post like with Anthony johnson

          1. I gave Anthony his own post because I had more information to say on it. I’ll have to consider whether I have more to say about US v. JD.

  5. See, this is what I get for getting sick and lying in bed most of the day on the 14th …

    Very good article, Al. You ought to polish this up in to a CWRT-style talk.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Perhaps something on the order of “Myths of Neoconfederate Loons.” 🙂

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